By Jacob Shapiro*
For all the optimism surrounding low unemployment rates and record-high real median income, there are some signs that something is rotten in the US economy. This isn’t wholly surprising – economic health tends to be cyclical, and the US is due for a recession. But when the next recession comes, there’s reason to believe it won’t be business as usual. The structural problems that led to the 2008 financial crisis haven’t been fixed. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.
In January, we forecast that the signs of just such a recession would emerge by the end of the year. And emerge they have. The yield curve between short-term and long-term US Treasuries is the flattest it has been at any point in the past 10 years. One of my colleagues, Xander Snyder, wrote an excellent piece last week on this very subject, and I encourage you to familiarize yourselves with it if you have not already done so.
A flattening yield curve, as he points out, is a problem in its own right, as is a declining prime-age labour force unable to secure adequate wages. But there are other longer-term forces at work that threaten to make what should be a minor cyclical recession a much more painful and prolonged affair. The two most consequential of these forces are increases in total household debt and the continued growth of wealth inequality within the US economy.
Household debt in the United States is now almost $13 trillion. That figure exceeds total household debt at any point during or in the recovery period after the 2008 financial crisis. Housing debt has crept back to pre-2008 levels. Credit card debt has reached pre-2008 levels too. Student loan debt has skyrocketed by 134 percent since the first quarter of 2008 (about 9 percent on average per year).
Increased household debt, though, doesn’t mean the end is nigh; it just means people are borrowing more money. Still, problems arise when people default on credit card and consumer loans. In the second quarter of 2017, the delinquency rate on credit card loans was 2.47 percent and on consumer loans was 2.21 percent. Low though these rates may be, they are trending upward.
Last month, shares of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup fell on the news that both banks had increased their reserves for consumer loan losses – just under $300 million for JPMorgan Chase and just under $500 million for Citigroup. Put simply, American consumers are beginning to spend beyond their means.
More serious than higher household debt, though, is increased income and wealth inequality in the United States since the 1970s. In 2015, the top 10 percent of all US earners accounted for just under 49 percent of total income – a share greater than at any time during the Great Depression. The top 1 percent accounted for 20 percent of total income.
This kind of disparity is a refrain in US economic history. It characterized the Gilded Age of the late 19th century as well as the decade or so before the Great Depression. Both were eras of immense wealth generation that benefited only the top, and both were rampant with speculation – the railroads and oil in the Gilded Age, the stock market in the Roaring Twenties. Today’s inequality is statistically more pronounced than during both of those times in history.
Wealth inequality was already increasing before the 2008 financial crisis, but what happened in 2008 has exacerbated the problem. According to the Pew Research Center, only upper income families have recouped the wealth they lost during the financial crisis. Median wealth was roughly 40 percent lower for lower-income families in 2016 than it was in 2007. It was roughly 33 percent lower for middle-income families. The median wealth for upper-income families, however, grew by 10 percent.
The US economy may have recovered in terms of top-line figures, but middle- and lower-income families have not. For those hardest hit, the tales of recovery ring hollow.
If that is the case, then how is it that real median income – one of the most important economic indicators we use to assess the health of the US economy – is so high? When we first forecast the coming crisis of the American middle class in 2011, median household income, adjusted for inflation, was lower than it was in 1989 or in 2000. The subsequent rise in real median income is a sign that the middle class has stabilized, right? Well, not really. Real median income can rise even as the gap between those above and below the median widens.
For example, the share of adults living in middle-income households has fallen since 1970. That year, 61 percent of adults lived in a middle-income household. In 2015, that number had fallen to 50 percent. The share of those living in a low-income household increased by 4 percent, and the share of those living in an upper-income household increased by 7 percent. The underlying problem is wealth inequality, and real median income does not necessarily capture wealth inequality.
And in 2017, real median income doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to. In the 1950s, the median cost of a home was a little more than double a family’s average annual income. A car was just under half of a family’s average annual income, according to data from the US Census Bureau and the US Department of Commerce. Today, it costs an average family about four times its average income to buy a house, and almost two-thirds its annual income to buy a car. A majority of households in the 1950s, moreover, were single-income households. By the end of that decade, the husband was the sole income generator for 70 percent of American households.
Analysis performed by Pew in 2015, based on the last US census, estimated that in 2012, 60 percent of American households were dual-income households. The purchasing power of the real median income has decreased even as US households have added a second breadwinner to the home.
For the past 40 years in the US, the rich have been getting richer, the poor have been getting poorer, and the middle class has been disappearing. The crisis of 2008 was a global phenomenon, but in the US, it was also an episode in an era of increasing inequality that began in the 1970s. The American dream was never about just making ends meet – it was about social mobility and giving your children a better life than you had growing up. That is beyond the means of an increasing number of US households. When the next recession comes, it will come as inequality reaches new heights, and if US history is any indication, that will translate into massive political change.